< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON [Vol. II]  |  > next chapter >


[-384-]

CHAPTER CCXLVIII.

 AN UNPLEASANT EXPOSURE.

    EGERTON'S countenance grew pale as death, when he beheld that carriage hastening through the Park towards the entrance of the Hall.
    Dunstable perceived and understood his fear: and he himself experienced no little dread lest the approaching vehicle should contain Lady Ravensworth. But, in the next moment, this suspicion vanished; for it did not seem probable that her ladyship would return to a mansion totally unprepared to receive her.
    The old gardener was, however, now shaking with a new alarm; and the departure was hurried as much as possible: but the travelling barouche had stopped near the entrance of the Hall ere Egerton's party had reached the bottom of the great staircase.
    There was no male domestic in attendance upon the carriage: the postillion accordingly alighted from his horse, opened the door, and assisted two females, both clad in deep mourning, to descend.
    Of those females, one was evidently a lady, and the other her maid.
    The former raised her black veil, immediately upon alighting, and gazed in astonishment upon the three vehicles which had prevented her own from drawing-up immediately against the steps of the principal entrance.
    By this time Egerton's party, followed by the old gardener who was doing his best to hurry the intruders away, had reached the portico; and it was at this precise moment that the lady raised her veil on descending from the barouche.
    Cholmondeley and Dunstable started; and the former exclaimed, "Lady Ravensworth!"
    Then, recovering his wonted self-command, he advanced towards Adeline, raised his hat, and said, "Your ladyship is doubtless astonished to see so large a party at Ravensworth Hall; but if you will permit me to speak to you five words in private  "
    "I have no secrets to discuss with Colonel Cholmondeley," interrupted Adeline, in a tone of freezing hauteur and yet of deep dejection: then, turning towards Mrs. Bustard, who had thrust herself forward to learn why the arrival of a barouche containing a lady and her female attendant had produced such a singular excitement amongst the gentlemen of the party, she said, "May I be permitted to inquire, madam, the meaning of this assembly on the day of my return?"
    "If you'll tell me fust, ma'am, who you are," replied Mrs. Bustard, "may be I'll satisfy you."
    "I am Lady Ravensworth," was the dignified answer.
    "Well then, my lady, all I can say is-and which I do on the part of my nephew Albert  that you're quite welcome to occupy a room or two in this edifisk until such times as you can provide yourself with another place  "
    "My dear aunt, allow me to explain myself to Lady Ravensworth," exclaimed Egerton, now stepping forward.
    "Eh  do, my boy," cried Mrs. Bustard, whose voice was somewhat husky with champagne, and whose sight, from the same cause, was a little dizzy  so that she did not perceive the glance of mingled anger and astonishment which Adeline threw upon her while she was so politely offering her ladyship the use of apartments in Ravensworth Hall.
    "Lady Ravensworth, permit me  one word, I implore you!" said Lord Dunstable, in an under tone, as he advanced before Egerton.
    Is this mystery to be explained to me at all?" cried Adeline. "Lord Dunstable, I have no better reason to grant a private interview to you than to your friend Colonel Cholmondeley: I therefore [-385-] 

hope that, without further delay, you will inform me to what circumstance I am to attribute the honour which my poor mansion has experienced by receiving so large a party during my absence."
    "Her mansion, indeed!" said Mrs. Bastard, with an indignant toss of the head, as she turned towards her daughters and Mr. Tedworth Jones, all of whom remained mute spectators of a scene, which was to them totally inexplicable.
    "Upon me must the weight of your ladyship's anger fall," said Egerton, again advancing, and mustering up all his courage to afford the requisite explanation.
    "No such a thing!" cried Mrs. Bustard. "What right has the lady to be angry? Because her house was put up for sale, and you bought it-"
    "Abraham, will you explain this enigma?" exclaimed Adeline, turning impatiently towards the gardener, whom she suddenly discovered peering from behind Sir Rupert Harborough.
    "Why, my lady," said the old man, twisting his paper cap over and over in his hands as he dragged himself irresolutely forward, "your ladyship sees these wery respectable folk  leastways, respectable as far as I know anythink to the contrairey,  for my maxim is, my lady  as I often says to my old 'ooman  says I  at such times-when she says, says she  "
    Adeline actually stamped her foot with impatience.
    "I'm a-coming to the pint, my lady," continued the gardener, now completely crushing the paper cap in his hand; "and in doing that, my lady, I, must ax your ladyship's pardon  'cos I'm a poor simple old man which can't boast of much edication  leastways, as I says to my old 'oo. man  "
    "This is insupportable!" cried Adeline. "In one word, did you not receive my letter stating that it was my intention to return to the Hall this week?"
    "No, my lady  no such a letter ever come," answered the gardener.
    "But you can perhaps inform me in two words how these ladies and gentlemen happened to honour my house with their presence i"' said Adeline, speaking in a severe tone.
    "Your house, ma'am!" shouted Mrs. Bustard, her countenance flashing with indignation: [-386-] "no such a thing! It's my nephew's  he bought it  and he is here to tell you so!"
    Thus speaking, she thrust Egerton forward.
    "My dear aunt," said the young man, tears starting into his eyes, "I have deceived you! I am sorry for the cheat which I have practised upon you: but the truth is  "
    "Don't tell me no more!" cried Mrs. Bustard. "I see it all. It's a hoax  a shameful hoax! And I shouldn't wonder if your Lord and your Baronet and your Honourables are all as Brummagem as our title to this edifisk. Come, Tedworth  come, gals: let's get back to the Pavement. This is no place for us."
    And having thus expressed herself, Mrs. Bastard bounced down the steps and clambered like an irritated elephant into the glass-coach, followed by her five daughters. Mr. Jones then mounted to the dickey; the seedy coachman whipped the horses, and the crazy old vehicle rattled away.
    Lady Ravensworth. attended by her maid, passed into the mansion without bestowing any farther notice on the gentlemen who still lingered upon the steps; and when she had thus disappeared, they hastened to take their departure for London, Egerton in a state of mind enviable only by a man about to be hanged.
    For nearly two years had Adeline been a voluntary exile from her native land; and, in the seclusion of a charming villa in the south of France, she had devoted herself to the care of her child, whom the gipsy Morcar had so miraculously saved from death. She also endeavoured, by the exercise of charity and a constant attention to her devotions, to atone for the crimes which she had committed; but, though deeply penitent, her soul could not stifle the pangs of an intense remorse. And thus had many  many sleepless nights  often rendered terrible by the shade of the murdered Lydia.  dimmed the fires of Adeline's eyes, and given to her cheeks the pallor of marble!
    Her only solace was her child, on whom she doated with all the affection which can be bestowed by a heart that has nothing else to love-nothing else to render existence even tolerable. The more she alienated her mind from the frivolities and levities which had occupied her when she was a brilliant star in the galaxy of London fashion,  and the more successfully she wrestled with those burning passions which had rendered her the willing victim of the seducer, even in her girlhood,  so much the more profound became her affection for the infant Ferdinand. But that consolation was not to endure. Five months before her return to England the boy was snatched away from her,  suddenly snatched away by the rude hand of Fever, as the rose-bud is cropped by the bleak north wind.
    Then how desolate became the heart of Adeline! She felt that her punishment had not yet ceased on earth.
    No longer were there charms for her in a foreign land; and she panted to return to her native clime. For some weeks she wrestled against this inclination; but having imparted her desire to Eliza Sydney, with whom she regularly corresponded, a letter from that excellent lady set her mind at ease as to the expediency of revisiting England. Eliza offered no argument against the project; and Lady Ravensworth accordingly hastened her preparations for a departure from the south of France.
    The faithful Quentin was still in her service; but the English lady's-maid, who had followed Adeline to the Continent, had married and settled in France. A French woman, therefore, supplied her place; and it was this foreign servant who accompanied Lady Ravensworth on her return to the Hall.
    Adeline's desire was to retrace her way in privacy to the mansion which, according to the conditions of her late husband's will, had become her own  for there was now no male heir to the proud title and broad lands of Ravensworth: and her intention was to dwell in the strictest retirement at the mansion. She had written to the gardener to command him to prepare for her return; but, by some accident, the letter had miscarried  and hence the old man's ignorance of the approach of his mistress.
    On her arrival, by the Calais steam-packet, at London Bridge, Adeline had left Quentin to clear the baggage at the Custom-House, and had proceeded direct to the Hall. The incidents which immediately followed her arrival are already known to the reader.
    It may, however, appear strange that Adeline should come back to a dwelling where she had suffered so much, and which could not fail to recall to her with renewed force the black crime which lay so heavily upon her conscience. But her mind was in that morbid state which is so well calculated to engender idiosyncratic ideas; and she believed that the very fact of her return to the scene of her enormity would prove a penance most salutary to the soul. Such purely Roman Catholic sentiments are frequently found exercising a deep influence over minds which contrition for great crimes has disposed to superstitious tendencies.
    There were also considerations of a more worldly nature which to some extent urged Lady Ravensworth to return to the Hall. She loathed the idea of dwelling amidst the noise, the din, and the crowds of the metropolis: she craved for the retirement of the country. Whither, then, could she repair save to the mansion which was her own? what excuses could she offer to those who knew her, for settling in any other part of the suburbs of London?  for near, though not in, the capital had she resolved to dwell, in order to be enabled to see her parents occasionally, and Eliza Sydney frequently.
    In addition to all the influences, moral and worldly, now enumerated, there was another which had confirmed Adeline in the idea of returning to the Hall. But this was a secret influence for which she could not account,  an influence that ever interposed amidst her waverings, to settle them in favour of the project,  one of those influences to which even the strongest minds are frequently subject, and for the existence of which they can give no satisfactory reason. Such an influence as this the Turk would denominate the irresistible current of Destiny; but the pious Christian believes it to be the secret and all-powerful will of heaven.
    Let us, however, proceed with our narrative.
    The intruders had departed; and Lady Ravensworth was as it were alone in that vast mansion which had so many sad and gloomy memorials for her!
    She entered the drawing-room where Egerton's party had banqueted; and, seeing the table covered with the bottles and glasses, turned away in disgust. Passing into the adjacent suite of apartments, she opened the shutters, and gazed around [-387-] the large and lonely rooms in which the silence of death seemed to reign.
    She looked at the pictures which hung upon the walls; and then it struck her that some change had taken place in those rooms, each feature of which she remembered well.
    The more earnestly she gazed upon her, the firmer became her conviction that every thing was not as she had left it. At length she perceived that three or four of the most valuable pictures had disappeared: a costly timepiece, too, was missing from the mantel of one apartment: several ornaments were wanting in another.
    Thinking that these objects might have been shifted from their usual places, she entered another suite of rooms; and there, instead of finding the things which were lost from the first, she perceived more vacancies amongst the pictures and the ornaments.
    The conduct of the old gardener in allowing a party of persons to use the mansion, the care of which had been entrusted to him, recurred more forcibly than at first to her mind; and what had hitherto appeared a comparatively venial fault, now assumed a complexion, when coupled with the disappearance of the pictures and ornaments above mentioned, which naturally created in her mind most alarming suspicions of his honesty.
    She rang the bell: her French servant responded to the summons; and Adeline desired that the gardener might be immediately sent into her presence.
    The maid withdrew, and conveyed by signs the order which she had received; for she was unable to speak a single word of English.
    The old man, who was deliberating with his wife upon the best means of breaking to Lady Ravensworth the unpleasant fact of there being a putrid corpse in the mansion at that very moment, received the command with a ludicrous expression of fear and vexation on his countenance; and he repaired to the presence of his mistress in a state of mind about as agreeable as if he were on his road to an auto-da-fe.
    "Abraham," said Lady Adeline, "there are certain circumstances which render my return to this house far from pleasant. Almost heart-broken by the loss of that dear, dear child who constituted my only earthly joy, I come back to my native land with the hope of at least finding tranquillity and peace in the retirement of Ravensworth Hall. But scarcely do I alight from my carriage, when I encounter upon the very threshold of my home a party of revellers whom your imprudence permitted to celebrate their orgies within these walls. This fault I was inclined to pardon: but when, upon the first superficial glance around the principal apartments, I perceive that many valuable articles have disappeared-"
    "Disappeared, my lady!" cried the old man, starting in a manner rather indicative of surprise than of guilt.
    "Yes, Abraham," returned Lady Ravensworth, severely: "pictures  ornaments  time-pieces  China bowls-and several objects of less value are missing from these apartments. Have you removed them elsewhere?"
    "Oh! my lady," cried the gardener, "you can't think that I would rob you! As God is my judge, neither me nor my wife has touched a single thing in the place  leastways, unless it was to dust and clean 'em. The door has been kept locked-"
    "But if you have been in the habit of allowing strangers the use of these apartments  "
    "No, my lady  this was the fast and the last time that me and my old 'ooman did such a thing," exclaimed the gardener, emphatically: and we didn't know we was a-doing anythink so wery wrong  seeing your ladyship wasn't here."
    "And you have not even observed that certain pictures and ornaments had disappeared?" inquired Adeline, who knew not what to conjecture  for the manner and words of the old man were indeed stamped with genuine and wholesome honesty.
    "Never, my lady  we never noticed it," was the answer. "For my part, I seldom come into these rooms at all: but my old 'ooman dusted 'em out regular once a month or so; and if sh'd [-sic-] missed anythink I should have knowed of it in a moment. But  "
    "But what, Abraham?" said Lady Ravensworth, in a kinder and much more conciliatory tone.
    "There's one circumstance that has very often troubled me and my wife more than once  or twice  or a dozen times even, my lady and yet  "
    "Speak candidly. Why do you hesitate? she said.
    The old man cast a hurried glance around, for it was now growing dusk,  and, sinking his voice to a whimper, he said, "The Hall is troubled, my lady."
    "What do you mean?" exclaimed Adeline starting from her seat, as if those words had electrified her. "Explain yourself, old man  speak!"
    "Ah! my lady  there's no doubt on it!" responded Abraham, again looking suspiciously around. "Mr. Vernon can't rest in his grave  his sperret walks about the house, and greatly terrifies us  "
    "A truce to this idle folly!" cried Lady Ravensworth, her tone once more becoming severe.
    Had the old man assured her that he had seen the spirit of Lydia Hutchinson, she would have been suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of tremendous awe; and she would have sank beneath the appalling weight of an announcement the truth of which she would not have dared to question.
    This influence, however, could only have been exercised over her by the superstition associated with her own dread crime; and when, contrary to her expectation, but greatly to her relief  the phantom she so much dreaded was not the one of which the old man spoke, she immediately rejected his tale as at once idle and unworthy even of credit.
    "A truce to this idle folly!" she cried; "and prepare yourself to give the explanations which my solicitor may require at your hands to-morrow. Leave me. Go at once. Do you hear me?"
    "I hope your ladyship  "
    "Leave me, I say; and send my maid up with lights."
    "Yes, my lady  certainly I will," returned the old man, without moving from the place where he stood: "but before I go  I must acquaint your ladyship  leastways, I must in dooty to myself state that  though it really ain't a wery pleasant thing you know  still it wasn't my fault   as my old 'ooman can readily prove to your ladyship  "
    Leave me!" cried Adeline, in a tone which showed that she was determined to be obeyed. "If you have any apology to offer for your conduct  -which, I regret to say, is now placed beyond all [-388-] doubt by the confusion of your manner  you must satisfy my legal adviser upon that head. Fear not, however, that I will seek to punish an old man who cannot have many years to remain in this world: no  I am not vindictive-my own sufferings," she added, with a profound sigh, "have taught me to be merciful to others. But I do not desire to prolong this conversation now. Leave me, I repeat  leave me!"
    The gardener endeavoured to obtain a farther hearing -for he was most anxious to communicate the fact of the dead body being in the house; but Adeline waved her hand in a manner so authoritative, that the poor old man had no alternative than to obey.
    He accordingly left the room, quite bewildered by the injurious suspicions which had arisen in the mind of his mistress against his honesty; for he had spoken naught save the plain truth when he declared that the disappearance of the pictures and ornaments had never been observed by either himself or his wife.
    The French maid carried lights up to the drawing-room, and received from Lady Ravensworth instructions to prepare the bed-chamber situate in the northern extremity of the building: this, in fact, was the same apartment that Adeline had occupied after she had ceased to inhabit her boudoir, and during the interval between the murder of Lydia Hutchinson and the suicide of Gilbert Vernon.
    The lady's-maid retired to fulfil her mistress's directions; and Adeline was left once more alone.
    The solemn silence that prevailed throughout the mansion added to the depression of her spirits; and she could not combat against a vague presentiment of approaching evil, which gradually acquired a greater influence over her.
    It is well known that many animals have an instinctive knowledge of impending danger, even while its source remains as yet unseen. The noble steed that bears the traveller through the forest, snuffs the air, paws the ground, and swerves uneasily from his path, when in the vicinity of the lair where the lion lies concealed: the little bird flutters wildly above the thicket which hides the lurking snake;  and the buffalo trembles through every limb as he approaches the tree from the dense foliage of which, high o'er head, the terrible anaconda is prepared to spring.
    Is such a feeling as this never known to human beings?
    We believe that it is.
    And certain was it that Adeline became the prey of a similar influence  vague, sinister, and undefined,  as she sate in the loneliness of the large apartment around which her glances wandered with an uneasiness that did not diminish.
    She rose from her seat and walked to the window: it was now quite dark  the sky was over-clouded-and neither moon nor stars appeared.
    "I could wish that the evening were less gloomy," she said to herself. "And how long Quentin seems to be!"
    Then she remembered that he had many purchases to make; for it was not expected that the gardener would have provided the requisite stock of provisions and necessaries, even if he bad received the letter announcing Lady Ravensworth's intended return.
    "Still I wish he would come!" said Adeline.
    "He is a faithful servant-and I should feel more secure were he near me. What can be this dreadful depression of spirits which I experience? Alas! happiness and I have long been strangers to each other: but never  never have I felt as I do to-night!"
    She started: it struck her that the handle of the folding doors communicating with the next room was agitated.
    Yes: it was no delusion  some one was about to enter.
    Yielding to fears which were the more intense because they were altogether inexplicable, she leant against the wall for support  her eyes fixed, under the influence of a species of fascination, upon the doors at the farther extremity of the room.
    Slowly did one of those folding-doors open; and for an instant, in the wild turmoil of her feelings, the unhappy woman half expected to behold the spectre of Lydia Hutchinson appear before her.
    But-no: it was a man who entered.
    The lights flared with the draught created by the opening of that door; and for a few moments Adeline could only perceive the dark form, without being able to distinguish his features.
    Not long, however, did this painful uncertainty last; for as the intruder advanced towards the almost fainting lady, the light suddenly shone full upon his countenance;  and, with feelings of indescribable horror, she once more found herself in the presence of the Resurrection Man.    

< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON [Vol. II]  |  > next chapter >